Leading submarine telegraphist Abdul Wahed Chowdhury was always so excited about his job. After all, when you are a submariner you immediately stand out from others. You are prowling the sea underwater, obtrusively amid lurking dangers.
When the Pakistan army cracked down in Dhaka on an innocent civilian population, Chowdhury, as he was known to his close buddies, was at the French naval base of Toulon on the PNS Mangro, the sleek, 57-metre submarine, for pre-sea trial before finally sailing for its base at Karachi.
Chowdhury should have been feeling good because after a long time away from home he would soon sail for his country, Pakistan.
Instead, he had this unease swirling inside him. He had been abreast with what had been going on in Pakistan. The election that the Awami League had won overwhelmingly, Yahiya Khan's dilly-dallying with handing over power, Bangabandhu's March 7 speech. And now the genocide.
By now Chowdhury knew his heart was no more with Pakistan and the navy he was serving. On a sleepless night lying on the steel bunker and listening to the soft snoring of others, he took his final decision – he will defect and join the war. He knew his country was in need of his service as East Pakistan was cut off from its west wing and waterways were the only supply line. In a war, cutting off the supply chain is vital to winning the war.
So the next day he started talking to the 13 other Bangali sailors on board the PNS Mangro.
"I am leaving to join the country's war. Will you join me?" he whispered to each of them. Eight of them agreed. The rest were not so sure but they gave words that they would keep quiet.
Chowdhury was ready for the escape. Before that he made an elaborate plan. They would travel to Switzerland, a country fiercely neutral in any international crisis.
The PNS Mangro was undergoing refurbishment at a dry-dock for the last time and on the night of 29 March, the nine were to silently slip out of the submarine one by one, separately so that no one suspected anything.
The chilly Mediterranean wind whipped his face as Chowdhury stood on the deck of his submarine for the last time. It was just after lunch. Nonchalantly, he headed for the shore. The quartermaster was on duty but he did not suspect anything as it was the end of the duty for the crew. Chowdhury's heart was pounding, he was carrying a backpack that contained 43 passports of all the sailors of the sub. As the secretary to the sub's commander, he had access to the vault where all the passports were kept. After all, Chowdhury was the most trusted man on board.
Very casually he stepped across the jetty towards his accommodation on shore, an apartment. Would he miss this beast? What if he gets caught? It was high treason that he was committing and the punishment could only be a firing squad.
He shrugged off his thoughts and felt better.
An unexpected snag
After reaching his apartment, Chowdhury quickly sorted out the passports of the nine Bangalis who were going to defect that night.
One by one he met each of them separately so that there were no witnesses and handed them their passports and tickets to Geneva.
That same morning, he had made a visit to the rail station in Toulon and bought the tickets for 75 francs each.
Chowdhury now had some time in hand because he would not leave before evening. He put a few clothes in an Adidas bag and his favourite Yashica automatic camera that he had purchased in France.
As evening fell, he came out of his quarter, donning a blazer and took a bus to the main road and then a taxi to Marseille, some 48km away.
There he checked into a cheap hotel and revisited his plan once more. His mind was whirling with the thoughts of safe escape.
At about 15 minutes before 12, he came out of his hotel room and walked to the rail station. He lazily strolled by the shops and his eyes got glued to the TV screen in an electronics shop. A football game was being screened with the Brazilian team playing. Himself a keen football fan, he spent a few minutes watching the game to calm the butterflies fluttering in his stomach.
Had he risked the lives of these eight people? He had deliberately decided to shuttle to Switzerland to take refuge at the Indian mission because they had no chance in France. The Indian mission in France might have turned them in to the police. But Switzerland was another story.
It was five minutes to 12 when the train would leave for Geneva. So he pulled himself away from the TV shop and boarded the train. He could see the other Bangali crewmen in the compartment but decided to keep to himself.
They had deliberately planned to sit separately so that no suspicious minds can wonder about who they were.
As the train stopped at the next station, he went to the toilet and dropped his apartment keys in the commode.
Six hours later they were in Geneva, but disappointment awaited them.
The first two of the deserters went past the immigration but as the third person approached he was stopped. The immigration officer flatly told them that they could not enter without visas.
"Sure, we will go to Paris and get our visas and come back tomorrow," Chowdhury told the officer after his persuasion failed.
By this time the two who had already passed through had returned, worried about the delay of the others.
They quickly took leave of the immigration officer and came out. What would they do now? The crewmen were a bit agitated. Some of them blamed Chowdhury for this sudden complication.
"Look, we are going to join a war for our country. We may embrace death but if you are so scared, then I am sorry," an upset Chowdhury told them.
The next decision was taken immediately. They quickly bought tickets to Paris for a train that was leaving in an hour. They did not end in Paris but alighted midway at Lyon and checked into a hotel.
Taking one of his mates, Chowdhury went to a travel agent and inquired which is the nearest country where a Pakistani can travel without visa.
The travel agent looked up some books and came up with the name: Spain.
The tickets were booked for Barcelona and the team was off to Spain on 31 March.
Before leaving Toulon, Chowdhury had one day talked to a Brazilian friend during lunch. He had told him that he wanted to desert his side and join the struggle for Bangladesh.
The Brazilian submariner listened carefully and advised him to take political shelter in a friendly country in case Chowdhury decided to desert.
So after checking into a cheap Barcelona hotel, the first thing Chowdhury did was to visit the Indian consulate with his mate Rahmatullah.
A guard opened the gate and wanted to know their business.
"We want to see an officer," Chowdhury said.
It was around 6:00 in the evening and only Gurdip Bedi, the second secretary, was there.
Chowdhury quickly described their defection to Bedi who was not only surprised but thrilled as well.
He knew it was something big happening.
"We are seeking political asylum," Chowdhury said.
"We will take care of that. We already know that you guys have defected and are looking for you," Bedi said as he handed some forms to be filled for political asylum. "We need some time. But meantime stay low and stay in a hotel," the white-turbaned Bedi advised.
"But we don't have enough money for hotel accommodation," Chowdhury replied.
Bedi quickly arranged their stay in a cheap hotel, two to a room. Then he sent an urgent telegraph to New Delhi.
The reply came back the next morning: "Immediately arrange for them to fly to India."
Now Bedi had a handful to work out. He first called Pablo Olmeda of Air India's office in Madrid. Since Air India had no direct flight to Delhi, he booked eight seats on Alitalia from Rome to New Delhi.
Now, Bedi had to arrange fake travel documents for the defectors. He had their photographs taken and arranged temporary travel documents with fake Hindu names.
The next day an Indian embassy staff took them to the Madrid-Barajas airport and Chowdhury and his party got their Pakistani passports stamped by the immigration. They were then given the fake Indian travel documents.
The story they were to parrot was simple. They were eight Indian holidaymakers who had lost their passports and were travelling on temporary documents.
Chowdhury sat back on his economy class seat and tried to calm down his nerves. What awaited in the future he did not know as he saw Madrid recede from his window and thought of Rome from where they were to board an Air India flight from New York to Delhi.
But at Rome a big surprise was in wait. Their defection news had already broadcast to the world and the Italian press was in full horde at the airport. After all it is not an everyday affair that defence officers defect.
But there was something worse than the media people waiting for the group. Chowdhury and his team froze at the sight of four or five Pakistani diplomats who had also rushed to the airport to whisk them away.
As the eight Mangro submariners walked to the lounge the diplomats screamed at them: "Ap galti kar raha hey (you are making a mistake). Don't do this. Come back to us, nothing will happen to you."
"Get lost," Chowdhury snarled back. "We are no more Pakistani citizens. We are going to fight for our country Bangladesh," Chowdhury screamed.
But another problem presented itself now. The flight from New York was being delayed for a labour strike in John F Kennedy airport. This meant at least a ten-hour delay giving the Pakistani more time to make diplomatic manoeuvres.
Chowdhury did not want them to get all that time. They quickly boarded a flight to Geneva with the help of Indian officials and then finally to Delhi.
All roads lead to Plassey
Leading seaman Mohammad Jalaluddin based in Chittagong naval base felt something ominous about to break; otherwise why would the Bangali naval officers and sailors be disarmed and held in a barracks?
Jalal and his Bangali colleagues had nothing to do the whole day – they could not go out, they could not talk to the non-Bangali sailors, they had no duty. All they could do was to talk about the country's political situation. Jalal had a small Panasonic transistor radio with a brown leather case that he had bought while on training in Japan. And now the whole bunch tuned in to All India Radio, BBC and VoA to get a bearing on what had been going on in East Pakistan. The news they were getting did not help lift their spirit – it seemed President Yahiya Khan was not going to hand over power to Sheikh Mujib, not so easily.
On 26 March, Jalal and the other confined soldiers had some hints gleaned from international radio stations of what had happened in Dhaka. He could not believe the Pakistanis had massacred his people. The confined soldiers spent anxious hours for an unknown future.
In the evening the order came. The Bangali sailors were asked to fall-in at the parade ground.
At 6:30pm it was already dark. So as sailors started marching in, Jalal knew it was his moment. He made an instant decision and slipped away into the darkness towards the barbed wire of the boundary.
With his boot he stepped on the sharp wire and pulled the other wire with his bare hands. A small gap appeared and he slipped through. The sharp nails scratched his back and he was bleeding. But he forced himself out and started walking still clad in his uniform.
The night was warm, a breeze blew in from the sea. A little later Jalal appeared at the quarters where he lived with his wife, two children and a niece.
As he knocked on the door, his anxious wife Shireen opened the locked door. All this while she had been worrying about the whereabouts of his husband.
"I am leaving. The Pakistanis have started killing the Bangalis. I have to go to war," Jalal said.
For a few moments Shireen went blank. She did not know what to say. But then she got back her composure and said, "Ok. If you have to go to war, you better go."
Jalal embraced his weeping children and quickly stepped out in a lungi. He walked to the local Awami League office where he knew a few leaders. There he met Subid Ali Bhuiyan (who would later become a major general) and local Awami League leader Abdul Aziz and some East Pakistan Rifles soldiers.
Together they built up a resistance at Halishahar. But when the Pakistani army attacked their position, they could not withstand the heavy pounding of artillery.
"We have to go to Agartala to get heavy weapons," Subid Ali told them. "Let us disperse."
Jalal quickly came back to his quarters through an empty road. He had little time in hand. Within minutes the whole family was on the street, walking. The children's tears had dried up because they knew something sinister was happening around them.
An eight days' walk took them to their village home in Magura. While there, he heard that a provisional government had been formed at Mujibnagar to wage the War of Independence. So he knew it was his turn to respond to the call of the country.
Jalal formed a group of 17 local youths and started walking again. Three days later they were in India at the Ranaghat training camp for freedom fighters. There he came to know that a process is on to form a naval commando force for Bangladesh.
Jalal knew it was exactly what he had been looking for, it is the exact job where he can contribute most for the country. So he managed to reach the Bangladesh government mission on Theatre Road in Kolkata soon. A few days later, he was on a truck heading for the historic Plassey.
Operation Jackpot is born
By April, it was clear to the Indian strategists that the birth of Bangladesh was inevitable and sooner or later India would be embroiled in a war with Pakistan.
But to win the war, the sea lanes of communication with Pakistan had to be blocked so its military machines were starved of fuel and other supplies. But with a formal war yet to be declared, it needed the formation of a naval commando unit of the Mukti Bahini.
The PNS Mangro crewmen were the perfect solution to this problem.
So the chief instructor of the Naval Diving School in Cochin Lt Samir Das was considered suitable for the task. He was summoned to New Delhi to induct the eight Mangro crew into underwater operation training. Captain MK Roy (later Vice Admiral), the director of Naval Intelligence, drew up a conception paper "Jackpot: Underwater guerrilla forces" that detailed who to recruit, what physical abilities the commandos must possess and all other nitty-gritty.
The commandos would be trained in the use of limpet mines – small magnetic explosives that attach to steel hulls and go off at a certain time – and to blow up supply ships anchored inside Bangladesh. Several spots were reviewed for probable training of the commandos. Diamond Harbour in Kolkata was ruled out as the current was too strong and within plain sight of the public.
Finally, the Bhagirathi River was chosen as the ideal spot. The camp was to be set up in the historic Plassey where in 1757 the last Nawab of Bengal Sirajuddowla had lost his fateful battle to Lord Clive.
The Bhagirathi, having about the same width as that of the Shitalakhya's, meanders in wide curves through very flat land. Here tents were pitched for accommodation. Teams were built to go out and recruit the would-be commandos.
And here, one day in a lorry, the PNS Mangro submariners arrived. Training started. It was tough training starting with the crack of dawn.
The recruits would fall-in and sing "Amar Sonar Bangla" and salute the flag of Bangladesh – a red sun set in the middle of lush green; a golden map of Bangladesh inside the red circle.
Rigorous swimming sessions were held so that the commandos could swim ten kilometres at a stretch, often at night. Explosives training was held. The Indian trainers imparted the dark art of sabotage and clandestine warfare.
The development of the limpet mines was the most crucial thing now as they had to be under three kilograms for the commandos to carry. They had to be rugged so that one blast would not set off other mines. Lt Sameer Das set about making the limpet mines perfect. How the timer would work proved to be a challenge.
The timing mechanism would set off the mine within half an hour of coming in touch with water. But a commando may have to swim for over an hour to reach his target and so he would be blown to death even before reaching the target. A clock mechanism was tried but that did not work as vibration of one blast would set off the other mines as well.
Meantime, in the high places, documents were being finalised named "Naval Commando Operations X", that detailed the commando attacks to be launched soon. It contained every details of who would be in the operations, where to strike and what equipment to be used for Operation Jackpot.
The supply ships for the Pakistan army plied supplies between Chittagong, Dhaka and Khulna. So the target was set to snap that supply line.
But the timer mechanism was yet to be fixed. How to lengthen the setting off time from half an hour?
The bright idea came from one commando who said, "Let's wrap the timer in a condom so that it does not come in contact with water before it is fixed to a ship."
The simple idea worked. All they had to do is wrap the soluble timing mechanism in a condom. Before sticking the mine to the ship, the condom had to be peeled off. The commando will then get half an hour time to swim back to safety.
On 17 June, Captain Mohan Narayan Rao Samant, in charge of the operation, submitted a situation report to Navy chief Admiral Nanda. Operation X was ready to roll. Monsoon would arrive in July and that was the best time to strike.
Petty Officer Chiman Singh gets a task
Petty Officer Chiman Singh was working as an instructor at the Naval Diving School in Cochin when he heard about the crackdown in Dhaka and Bangabandhu's declaration of independence.
A few days later Chiman heard of the eight Pakistani submariners deserting from France and arriving in India.
"I was not in Delhi at that time but one of my officers, a Bengali diver, was called to Delhi."
One day, Chiman was summoned and sent to Kolkata. Chiman had no idea why he was suddenly transferred, but an order is an order and it must have some deep meaning. So along with eight other instructors, he diligently complied with the instructions.
Soon after arriving in Kolkata, they were taken to the navy office and briefed about their mission – they would have to set up a camp and train Bangladeshis for naval commando operations.
Chiman, a very expressive man with lots of exuberance, could not be any happier. It would be a new experience, a new challenge and Chiman was always there when hurdles were to be crossed.
The first task he had was to select a place for training and found Plassey as the most suitable location.
Chiman and his fellow trainers started off with the eight PNS Mangro crewmen and very soon, more young recruits started pouring in.
From Bombay to Plassey
In March 1971, Lt Vijay P Kapil was posted in Bombay looking after the fleet clearance team. As a specialist in mine clearance and diving operations, his responsibility was to see that the naval ships at Bombay harbour were safe from any sabotage. The situation in East Pakistan made him even more alert.
In mid-April, he got instructions to move to Kolkata. Vijay did not know why he was so hurriedly summoned, but he sensed it must be something to do with the situation in the neighbourhood. He had already heard that eight submariners from the PNS Mangro had already deserted and arrived in India.
On an April morning, Vijay, his course mate Lt Sameer Das along with some diving instructors flew into Kolkata.
At the briefing session, everything became clear – they were to train naval commandos of the Mukti Bahini and the PNS Mangro defectors would form the nucleus of this force.
Sameer went to Delhi to interview the Mangro crewmen and test their potential and dedication.
The training campsite had already been selected in Plassey and now it was time to recruit volunteers.
Vijay and Sameer Das undertook the arduous task of scouting for able-bodied young men from the Mukti Bahini camps and refugee camps in the border areas.
They checked if they could swim, if they could comprehend technical issues and could understand a bit of Hindi.
They looked for intelligent young people who had the stamina and the dedication to go through rigorous training.
In the first effort, 60 volunteers were selected and brought to the camp in Plassey by the first week of May.
Two songs to wait for
Arati Mukherjee and Pankaj Mullick, two famous Bangla singers, somehow got parts to play in Operation X.
As the monsoon cloud formed over the Bay of Bengal and rolled across Bangladesh, it was time to strike; and surprise, secrecy and accuracy were the three main elements for success.
Indian planners worked out the game. All the 178 commandos trained for the last few months would be escorted to the borders and handed to the sector commanders to infiltrate into enemy land. Local guides would escort the teams to their targets as General Yahya Khan flexed his muscles and ranted about "imminent all-out war" with India.
Captain MNR Samant was tense in his tent with the burden of implementing Operation X as the moment of reckoning approached. The time was set during the new moon when the night would be dark.
The H-hour or the exact time of strike was a dark secret. But the areas were already selected – Chittagong port, Mongla/Chalna and Narayanganj river port.
Two songs were played to the team commanders repeatedly for two weeks so that there was no mistake in recognising the tunes. One was sung by Arati and the other a Tagore song by Pankaj. Each team was given a small transistor radio which they would have to turn on every day after entering enemy territory and wait for the songs to be played.
The first was a signal for H-hour minus 48, meaning the attack to be launched within 48 hours. The second was the strike order. The attacks have to be carried out within 24 hours of the song being played.
Only the commanders of each team knew about this secret signal.
Now the commandos were lined up and individually photographed. The final checks on the mines were carried out.
And then, very surreptitiously, these 178 commandos were transported to the borders from where they slipped into enemy territory in groups of five. Each of them carried one limpet mine, swim fins, knife and Rs50 in Pakistani currency. Group leaders got more money to rent local transports like boats and cars and a radio.
The long wait
Abdul Wahed Chowdhury could hardly be recognised as the smart submariner of the PNS Mangro in his lungi and a torn T-shirt.
But here was the most dangerous man with burning eyes looking for the Pakistani enemy. On his shoulder lay the most important burden of sabotaging the Chittagong port.
On 10 August, he led a team of 60 commandos divided into three groups into East Pakistan.
He and his group were transported in an Indian Air Force aircraft to Agartala from where they penetrated into East Pakistan through the Belonia border.
The group trekked barefoot in disguise for three days through Mirsarai and Sitakunda to reach Chhoto Kumira on the outskirts of Chittagong after three days.
Here they took shelter in the mud hut of a disguised worker. They would stay put during the day only to step out after dark even to visit the outhouse.
They had hidden the limpet mines under haystacks.
Now the wait began. Every morning Chowdhury would switch on his radio and tune to All India Radio for the signal.
On 13 August, Arati Mukherjee's sweet voice wafted over the radio: "Amar putul ajkey prothom jabey shoshur bari…" exactly at 6am.
It had an electrifying effect on Chowdhury. The H-hour minus 48 had just been announced.
He shook his second in command Shah Alam up from sleep. In the semi darkness of the muggy monsoon dawn, they sat silently and listened to the song.
Across Bangladesh, other commandos of Operation X also listened to the song and knew the time had arrived.
That same day Chowdhury and his team moved out from Kumira. He and Shah Alam moved into a house in Agrabad, the commercial hub of Chittagong, the third team went to Faujdarhat.
Chowdhury had to launch his attack in the upstream of the Karnaphuli for which he must cross the river. Now this proved a formidable challenge as the city was teeming with Pakistan military men and roadblocks were in place. It was impossible to pass through these with the limpet mines for so many men.
The problem was solved by one of his commandos Khurshid who procured a Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) pickup truck which could move past the check posts without raising suspicion.
Tagore for final strike
Six am, 14 August. Chittagong sky was cloudy and it was raining from morning.
Pankaj Mullick's dulcet voice came floating over the radio: "Ami tomay jato shuniyechhilem gaan…"
Chowdhury and Shah Alam sat upright in the darkness of the house. Tonight was the time to strike. The signal was clear and obvious. The day was carefully chosen to be 14 August, the independence day of Pakistan. The Mukti Bahini would strike at the heart of Pakistan on its very independence day for the maximum impact on the morale of the Pakistani leaders and soldiers.
After breakfast, Chowdhury and his team started dispersing in twos and threes on rented cars. Only the mines were to be transported in the pickup truck.
Around 11:30pm, Chowdhury and his deputy Shah Alam reached Anwara on a country boat. The rain had not stopped that cheered up their hearts. A rainy night meant the guards onboard the ships were relaxed.
In the darkness of the night, the commandos gathered by the bank where they quickly assembled the mines with detonators and put condoms over the timers. But the third team from Faujdarhat was missing.
Where were those 20 commandos? Chowdhury was tense. But the operation could not be abandoned now.
Their targets – 11 ships – were anchored on the Karnaphuli, their dim pilot lights visible.
Close to midnight, 33 commandos gathered in groups of three at a regular space, discarded their lungis and vests and put on diving suits. They helped each other to tie one mine to each commando's chest with Gamchha – the thin cotton local towel – using double knots so that the mines could be easily detached.
The rest seven were left on the bank with WWII vintage 9mm sten guns to provide safety coverage.
Slowly, one by one, the commandos walked backwards into the waters of the Karnaphuli, never knowing that 10% of them might never come back alive. In the distance, the pilot lights of the ships that they would target burnt on, making it easy for the commandos to find their ways.
In groups of three the 33 commandos silently swum towards their targets.
"I may soon meet you in heaven, amma"
The limpeteers swam slowly with the current, their head barely above the water towards their targets. The tide was going out and the notorious Karnaphuli ebb current was high.
Chowdhury, like the others, was swimming on his back, face up. The mine on his tummy. He was in the middle of the group – ahead of him was a young boy named Satyen and following him was Bidhan.
Half way in the Karnaphuli, Chowdhury suddenly remembered his mother who had passed away 14 years ago.
"I may soon meet you in heaven, amma," Chowdhury silently said.
It took him only about three minutes to reach his target.
Chowdhury went to the bow of the ship, while Bidhan focused midship and Satyen targeted the stern.
Chowdhury brought out the knife strapped to his leg and scraped off the barnacles on the hull of the ship. Then he took the mine and fixed it to the steel hull. He yanked away the detonator pin and began swimming with the current.
Suddenly shots rang out. Somehow the guards had got wind of the frogmen and they were shooting into the water. Chowdhury could hear the bullets hitting the water around him. He dived underwater and swam as swiftly as he could.
The commandos finally came ashore near the Marine Academy, far away from the spot of the operation. All of them regrouped and started walking as fast as they could.
None of them heard any explosion as they were far from the ships. But the next day, Chowdhury and his team were elated when they heard the news that nine of the 11 ships they had targeted sank in the Karnaphuli blocking the channel.
[This story has been prepared on the basis of interviews of Commodore (retd) Abdul Wahed Chowdhury, Bir Uttam, Lt Cdr (retd) Jalal Uddin, Bir Uttam, Commander (retd) Vijay Kapil, Petty Officer (retd) Chiman Singh, Naval commando Sheikh Shahadat Hossain, and an authoritative book – 'Operation X: The Untold Story of India's Covert Naval War in Bangladesh' by Captain (retd) MNR Samant and Sandeep Unnithan.]
Tales of three warriors of the sea
We didn't join Liberation War to demand a title or expecting any benefits
Naval Commando Sheikh Shahadat Hossain
In 1971, I was a first-year student at Kolarowa College.
In April that year, my uncle (husband of my maternal aunt) along with his brother was killed in the Parkumira massacre. Around 65 people lost their lives that day at the hands of the Pakistan Army.
I caught a glimpse of the killings while returning from my lodging in Kolarowa. The grievance of my family motivated me to join the Liberation War.
I wrote a letter to my father informing him about my decision and handed it to my little sister. I, Montu and Dulal soon crossed the border and reached Tokipur training camp near India's Basirhat.
While receiving guerilla training, Captain Das (Lt Sameer Das of the Indian Navy) visited the camp to recruit a number of Bangladeshi youths to form a naval commando squad. Forty people including me were chosen to be a part of the training unit.
We set off for the new training camp with Das.
The team travelled for one day and night and all of us were vaccinated before the journey. Many of us fell ill with fever on the way. Finally, we reached the spot near Palashi Mango Orchard by the side of the River Bhagirathi.
A week earlier, another guerrilla group arrived there from Agartala. They assisted us in clearing the jungle and setting up tents.
The next day we were told to cross the Bhagirathi. Only I and another youth from our 40-member group were able to cross it despite great difficulties and the rest were picked up by assisting Indian speedboats.
The other side was Murshidabad's Berhampore. Here Sameer Das and other instructors trained us in combat class, mine class, demolition class as part of the training.
Upon completion, I was supposed to take part in the first naval operation executed by the freedom fighters in Mongla.
However, Das did not let me join that team knowing I was the only son of my parents. The first group, consisting of 12-15 freedom fighters then set out for Mongla in September to disrupt the Pakistan Navy.
Shortly after their departure, I was selected with 40 others to form a second group with an objective to demolish Pakistan warships and gunboats in the Mongla area.
Our team leader was PNS Mangro's fugitive submariner Mohammad Rahmatullah (Naval Commando Lieutenant (retd) Gazi Mohammad Rahmatullah, Bir Protik) who was popularly known as Rahmatullah Dadu. He had fled France and joined the War of Liberation.
After the first group had executed their operations, Mongla became virtually impenetrable. This is due to regular patrolling of Pakistan gunboats, numerous scattered shelters of Razakars and fortified anchoring points.
We crossed the border on foot. We used to walk at night and took refuge in shelters during the day before reaching near Mongla.
Shortly before reaching Mongla, we had taken shelter in the empty house of a man named Nawabji in the Sundarbans area. At that time a Pakistani gunboat that was hidden in a canal was passing right by our shelter.
A group of freedom fighters from Ansar, EPR and other wings of East Pakistan defence were with us carrying mortars, LMGs and other weapons.
They decided to attack the gunboat. We, the naval guerillas, requested them not do it because carrying out such an attack at that time would make it difficult for us to complete our assigned task. We were sent to sink the Pakistan military's ships and gunboats. However, the eager freedom fighters reassured us saying that there would be no problem and urged us to support them in combat. We had to agree with them.
We took up position alongside the route of the gunboat where the river had taken a turn.
As soon as it showed up at the turn, two teams of freedom fighters opened fire. Fortunately, instead of shelling from the gunboat, the military sought refuge from gunfire and returned to where they were hiding.
If they had come a little further and started shelling, not a single one of us would have survived. We had nothing but a few rifles, LMGs and mortars.
In response to the attack, continuous firing started from the bunkers of the nearby Assasuni College camp. There were about 200-250 Razakars.
Meanwhile, we were sitting ducks in an empty space, with no shelter nearby. Therefore, we desperately continued firing and charging grenades.
The encounter lasted from 12 midnight to 4 am. Only one or two freedom fighters were injured while several of the Razakars had died.
Sensing their low morale, we put up a signboard near the Assasuni camp, telling them to surrender before dawn. We arrested some Razakars including the officer-in-charge of the local police station. The next day we left for Mongla.
After reaching the River Pashur in Mongla, Rahmatullah Dadu instructed us to use the current and float to our objective.
Earlier, our reconnaissance team had reported at 8 o'clock that there were two gunboats anchored in Chalna Ghat. It was truly a monumental task because there were patrols of Razakars on both sides of the river one mile from the gunboat anchoring point.
To put it simply, if someone came floating in the river unprepared, they would be easily caught because the Razakars used to keep a regular eye on the river with torches from both sides. Razakars also had bunkers here.
So to avoid getting caught, I, Kader, Shamsher and Raisuddin, camouflaged our heads with algae and decided to slowly backstroke to reach the Pakistan gunboats.
We had Limpet mines in our chests, swimming suits and flippers and knives as weapons. It was also decided that Raisuddin and I would fit mine in one gunboat and Kader, Shamser in another.
We snuck into the River Pashur at 12 o'clock. Kader and Shamser told us the first boat to be seen would be blown up by Raisuddin and me and the two of them would put mines on the one in the back. But in the middle of the river, we got separated from each other in the dark.
Now, after silently approaching the boat I fitted my mine guessing its location with a detonation time of 40 minutes, although we later learned that a gunboat had left.
Shortly after finishing the objective, I started the return journey. Das had ordered us to float at least a mile and then climb ashore. However, after half a mile in the dead of winter, my leg cramps started. I somehow managed to get myself out of water.
And when I reached the bank I understood in awe that I had landed myself exactly mere feet away from a Military camp near Dakop. There was a Razakar patrolling route from about 8-10 feet away from where I had got up from the water.
As I was walking a little further upstream, I saw a narrow canal on the way and noticed that a group of Razakars was on duty. Luckily I didn't catch their attention. While on my way back from there, I bumped into another Razakar on duty who quickly shouted to the Army superior at the camp.
I immediately ran to a paddy field near the fish dam and attempted to hide. Within 5-10 minutes, heavy firing started from the dam and I tried to escape through the paddy field. The LMG brushfire continued in my position and meanwhile, the Razakars and army personnel surrounded the entire field while lighting up the entire area in search of me.
I stayed face down in the mud in the paddy field. Two Razakars were breaking through the paddy fields to look for me while I was moving away little by little.
When they were about to reach my position, fortunately, my planted mine exploded and immediately the light went out in the whole area. Their feet were only a few steps away from me when the explosion occurred. Surprised and shocked by the devastation, the Razakars and the military all rushed back to the camp.
I soon escaped from that kill zone and later lost my way in a small forest. The next morning I came out of the forest and encountered a local Razakar.
Later I tried to find out the way to the village near my camp by tempting him. I was even prepared to kill the man, had he attempted to hand me over to the military.
I quickly changed my clothes at his house and he assured me that his son will show me the way to the village nearest to our camp.
Another man from Dakop whose cordial attitude I'll never forget, despite being a Hindu had stayed in the area and recognised me as a freedom fighter. From him, I came to know that Rahmatullah Dadu had searched extensively with a team after my three companions reported I was either dead or captured by the military.
He had also informed the local people to give me the address of the new camp. It is to be noted that the freedom fighters shifted the camp the same night as the shelling of Pakistanis increased.
Then I joined our group and left Mongla and went to India. About a month later Bangladesh achieved victory.
After the war, I joined the Bangladesh Navy. However, I could not attend my intermediate final exams.
I did not join the Liberation War to demand any title or hoping of receiving any benefits so I am not complaining about how the country has treated me.
First-ever attempt to destroy Pakistani ship with arms and ammunition that cheered Muktibahini
Commander Vijay P Kapil
It was the end of March, 1971 after Bangabandhu declared independence. Eight submarine sailors of the Pakistan Navy, from Bangladesh [the then East Pakistan], were in Tulon, France. Their submarine was undergoing trials.
All of them, including AW Chowdhury and Rahmatullah, decided to quit the Pakistan Navy and join the fight for freedom. In early April, they were given asylum in India.
The top brass of the Indian Navy, Admiral SM Nanda and his intelligence officer Captain Micky Roy (Director Naval Intelligence Mihir K Roy) decided to use the expertise of the eight mariners to disrupt the waterways of East Pakistan.
I was called to Kolkata in mid-April. So, I and my coursemate Lt Sameer Das alongside our diving instructors went there to train the first few members of Muktibahini. Volunteers were chosen based on their grasp of language and technical things and swimming ability.
The eight submariners, who had escaped from France, were considered the nucleus of waterborne attacks.
Sameer was called to Delhi as a Bengali-speaking person to interview the guys and see their potential and dedication.
Sameer and I kept looking for a suitable place and found it in Plassey (Palashi) for training.
We set up a camp there. The first batch of volunteers was selected by me and another by Lt Sameer. We travelled to Muktibahini camps and refugee camps in the border areas to recruit volunteers.
We looked for those who were intelligent and had the motivation and physical stamina and dedication to complete the tasks they were given.
In the first attempt, we could select about 60 volunteers and they were brought to the camp by the first week of May. Our training started between the first and second week of May. The eight submariners were brought from Delhi to Plassey. It was called the "Water Camp" for Muktibahini.
We had made a training schedule, and in following that we started some physical exercises like morning runs and swimming. They would stay in water for three-four hours, even for six hours a day. To build their stamina we had slowly introduced runs of one or two kilometers extending up to about ten kilometers early in the morning.
The volunteers picked up very fast. We selected them through an aptitude test very similar to the process to choose volunteers for the Indian Navy.
We had a very tough screening and training. Top-level brass of the Indian Navy visited our camp and found that the food requirement was much greater. Two more senior officials were brought in. One was required to look after camp commanding duties as I and Das were busy providing training. We had to keep everything under the veil of secrecy because the kind of attack we were planning required a tremendous amount of surprise elements and it could only be achieved if everything was kept secret until the last moment before hitting the enemy.
Somewhere in July in the thick of the monsoon, when the flooding would cause problems in transportation and travel, our bosses thought, would be the right time to launch an attack.
Commander MN Samanth, who was in the headquarters of the Army in Calcutta reported directly to the JSMC J. Aurora and Gen Jacob. Our chain of command was very secret, short and simple. Samanth overlooked training and operations. Volunteers were coming in every week by the number of 30 to 40.
Within three weeks, we gave them basic training and turned them into good waterborne saboteur teams.
Preparations were made to use limpet mines. These were small and had the shape of half sawed football. It can contain 2-3 kgs of explosives and it has magnets to stick to any iron structure. We were short in supply in India. The navy very wisely thought that if they imported 1,000 mines alongside 1,000 pairs of flippers from the UK or other international markets, the news would definitely reach Pakistan.
So, it was decided that India-made flippers, knives and limpet mines would be used. Limpet mines were ready by July. The Navy decided that the saboteurs would launch an attack on 15 August.
One team would start from Agartala to cover Chittagong, Narayanganj and Chandpur region, and for the Mongla area where assaults would be launched by boats, a team would start from Hasnabad, Bashirhat area. In total, around 160-170 people joined the attack. The main team was sent under AW Chowdhury for Chittagong. Rahmatullah was responsible for the Khulna- Mongla area. The eight submariners were also trained simultaneously and they became very good motivating leaders.
In WW2, the British Army used the radio service to signal their troops for attack and it proved to be very effective. During programmes, they would broadcast hidden signals, sometimes in the form of a song, and we followed the same thing. All India Radio from Calcutta through the Agartala relay station broadcast the songs. Two songs were selected. One would mean "the attack will be within 24 hours wait for the second signal" and the second song would mean the imminent launch of the attack.
It was planned that the attack will be on a moonless night and the time would be somewhere near slack water which means the time when the tide is changing from high water to low water or low to high water so that the force of the current would be almost negligible.
The saboteurs would dive about six feet underwater, scrape off the sea-growth and stick the mine there. Nobody except the top brass knew when the attack would take place. They were launched in early August so that they could reach the target and stick around for 2-3 days. Ammunition was sent through the channels of Army and local Muktibahini commanders. They had hired local guides from nearby villages. They would travel at night and sleep during the day when the guides would hide them. Guides were changed every few hours so that if they were stopped by the Pakistani Army, they could be passed off as locals. The saboteurs had to form groups of 8 to 10 people to avoid suspicion as there were Razakars at that time who were giving information to Pakistani armed forces.
It was a very commendable operation from the Muktibahini, but a lot of the credit goes to people like guides who helped being at a high risk. If caught, they and their families and villages would be wiped out. Then there were people who were giving shelter.
The people in the target area were those who were at the highest risk of losing everything for being part of the operation. The Pakistan Army knew all about them and their relatives. It was a commendable act by Muktibahini and the underground freedom organisation within East Pakistan.
It was the first attack of its kind to take place (in the war). It was reported in the newspapers. The Pakistanis were caught off guard. And the devastation that took place in Chittagong was most important because that was where Pakistan military and cruise ships, their Russian ships and troop ships used to come, and in one night we sank about three ships. One of them was carrying arms and ammunition.
It was a great morale booster for Muktibahini.
The operation came out as a complete success, with a very few casualties. In an operation like this, 20% of the forces sent were not expected to come back. We lost 2 to 3 people which was very sad.
The Pakistan Army had to withdraw almost one division force from the border areas to guard the waterways. After the 15th August attack, the land forces of Muktibahini launched fresh attacks which were again very successful and they hurt the Pakistan Army so much that they became very demoralised.
Training in the Plassey camp stopped in mid-November and the boys were transferred to various other camps and some infiltrated East Pakistan. The camp was wound up because no more training was required at that time as very few volunteers remained.
Unfortunately, we lost Lt Das in an automobile accident in Meghaloy camp in Tura. We trained over 400 volunteers in two to three months.
I went for operation in Barishal though not ordered by Indian Navy
Chiman Singh Yadav
In late March in 1971, when I was an instructor in the Kochi diving school, I heard that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had declared independence. Later, I came to know that eight submariners of the Pakistan Navy deserted from their respective posts in France.
Seeking asylum, they contacted the Indian mission abroad and were brought to Delhi and granted asylum.
I was not in Delhi at that time, but one of my officers, a Bengali diver, was called to Delhi. Lt Sameer Das and another Bengali specialist diver, Mr Gupta were sent to Delhi, and they along with higher authorities in the Navy, including the naval chief, planned to use the eight submariners in training volunteers as saboteurs and organise all naval commando missions.
So all the plans were there, and they organised a team I was a part of and I was transferred to Calcutta from the Kochi diving school. The eight were called to report to Calcutta for unknown orders. When we had reached Calcutta, we still did not have any information regarding that. After that we were briefed that "this is a mission, we are going to organise a training camp and train East Pakistanis".
That started in April and we went to select a place with a river nearby, for imparting training on swimming and others. We found a very suitable place in Plassey located in Murshidabad district near the River Bhagirathi. We were told to organise the camp and we went to nearby refugee camps as far as I can remember.
We started to look for young boys who just passed schools or colleges and were good swimmers. We recruited some of them who were good swimmers from nearby Khulna.
We used to begin the day with Bangladesh's national anthem to motivate them and after that, we would go for physical training. After one or two hours of training, they had breakfast and following that they were divided into groups. Some would go for swimming, some would go to small arms training class, some to demolition class, some to unarmed combat class, etc. We had lunch and in the evening after tea, we would go in for some sports and train again.
All those things had continued for three to four months and then, an action plan was chalked up to attack enemy harbours and ships.
Our trainees were dispatched all over East Pakistan –Narayanganj, Mongla, Chalna, Chittagong, and Cox's Bazar etc. I personally went to Barishal for an operation in October, although I was not ordered to go for that.
At the time of launching an operation on completion of their all preparations, when I said goodbye to them, they told me, "Sir, why do not you come with us? It will be of great help. You can guide and motivate us."
So I changed my mind. I left my ID in the camp as it was the bordering area, and without taking any order, I went back to them.
We walked all the way to Barishal from the Indian border for almost seven-eight days, as far as I can remember.
For every operation, we had a guide from the particular area. We used to take shelters in villages as per the directive from our guides. All guides would look after us and guide us.
We would provide them with certificates for their involvement in freedom fighting. We used to go out at night and go into hiding in morning. I myself was scared because I was an Indian. I had had to make sure that I did get caught alive.
For our main operations, we used to carry limpet mines to sink barges and anything underwater but we also carried small arms like rifles and submachine guns just to protect ourselves. We also used to carry plastic explosives, detonators and other pieces of equipment required for explosions. I was scared because if I was caught, the Pakistan Army would show the media that it was an operation by the Indian Navy, not by the Bengalis from East Pakistan.
On the way to Barishal, we came across Razakars. The guide informed us that they were coming to loot valuables from the villagers. So, we ambushed them and had a small fight. Then, we detonated a transmitting station. On reaching Barishal, we met Omar (probably Captain Shahjahan Omar). He was a local Mukti Bahini commander. We planned to blow up any nearby ships or barges we would come across. Shortly after setting up the plan, we were told to return to the camp. Later, I reported back to the Indian Battalion.
On my return to India, I was debriefed and my commander told me that I had to go through debriefing by military intelligence as I went to Barishal there without taking permission, which was very rare.
Why would I walk a few hundred miles to reach Barishal and return? They questioned my integrity and it continued for four-five days and I was given clearance by the intelligence.
After that, my commander came all the way from Plassey and let me know that a war has been declared and we were officially fighting the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh. I was posted in a boat called "Padma". Two other boats were also stationed near the Sundarbans BSF camp. We boarded them and took ammunition, other equipment officially.
Our plan was to bombard Khulna and use limpet mines to destroy barges and whatever targets were available. The three boats departed for Chalna, Mongla and Khulna.
After reaching Khulna on 10 December, a military aircraft, supposedly an Indian one, attacked our ship and we had to abandon it. This was probably due to a miscommunication. There were a number of casualties. Other Indian officers and I swam ashore, but unfortunately, the Pakistan Army was alerted by the bombardment and was waiting ashore. I was injured in an explosion and was shot as well. I saw some of the freedom fighters getting captured by the Pakistanis and did not know what happened to them whether they were killed or jailed.
After the three of us were captured, I was given the first aid and put in a small room where I found some fellow Indian officers. All of us were worried.
I remember the continuous sound of shelling from the cramped room we were in. After six days, when Bangladesh was liberated, we were released and handed over to the Indian Army. We did not know how many freedom fighters and my naval commandos survived or how many were casualties because they did not allow us to meet, and we were not in any position to ask about them. Some five to six commandos were with me when I was swimming ashore. I could not know about their fate.
Chiman Singh Yadav was a Leading Seaman in the Indian Navy and was later promoted to the rank of Petty Officer.